Star Trek At the Oscars
Few film franchises can rival the enduring success of Star Trek. With 13 films across some 40 years, Star Trek has certainly lived long and prospered in the hearts of moviegoers.
Given the franchise’s success on the silver screen, it is no surprise that it has also been a consistent presence at the biggest event in filmmaking – the Academy Awards. With this year’s ceremony just around the corner, we thought now would be an excellent time to revisit Star Trek's history with the most prestigious awards in show business.
From its very first film outing, Star Trek was recognized at the Oscars. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture exploded onto cinema screens in December 1979, it offered fans a vision of Trek as they had never seen it before. With its blockbuster budget and special effects wizardry, The Motion Picture was a feast for the eyes, gaining nominations at the 1980 Oscars in the Art Direction and Visual Effects categories.
The Motion Picture also picked up a third nomination, for its score by Jerry Goldsmith. This would mark the beginning of Goldsmith’s long association with Star Trek. He would go on to score four more Trek films, as well as composing the theme for Star Trek: Voyager. And, his music from The Motion Picture would be repurposed for the opening and closing credits of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Goldsmith’s music was also heard during the 1980 Oscars ceremony itself, as host Johnny Carson introduced “two of the stars from the phenomenal Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to center stage. The stars were William Shatner, who had reprised his role as Captain (now Admiral) Kirk for The Motion Picture, and Persis Khambatta, unrecognizable to many with her long black hair, who had played the bald Deltan alien Ilia. The pair presented two awards that night for Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Short Subject.
William Shatner would take to the podium again a few years later, when he was joined by his long-term Star Trek co-star Leonard Nimoy to present the award for Visual Effects at the 1987 Oscars. The pair materialized from behind a cloud of smoke, before marching onstage to the strains of Alexander Courage’s theme from Star Trek: The Original Series and rapturous applause from the audience. Nimoy, best known for his iconic Trek role as the Vulcan alien Spock, greeted the audience with an appropriate, “Hello Earthlings” Shatner introduced the award by commenting on the magic of special effects before Nimoy quipped, “If they’re so good at magic, I wish they could conjure up a couple of awards for us!”
Nimoy may have been referring to a Star Trek ‘curse’ which was already becoming apparent at the Oscars. The franchise had walked away empty-handed at the 1980 Oscars, despite three nominations for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And now, at the 1987 ceremony, the Nimoy-directed Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, would also be overlooked, with no wins from its four nominations in the Cinematography, Music (Original Score), Sound and Sound Effects Editing categories.
When the original cast had their final feature film outing five years later with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, there were once again nominations but no wins, this time in the Sounds Effects Editing and Makeup categories. This latter category was to become a very important one for Star Trek at the Oscars. It provided the only nomination for the four films starring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when Star Trek: First Contact was recognized in 1997 for the extraordinary makeup used to create the Borg. It was also the category which provided Star Trek with its greatest triumph at the Oscars, when the franchise finally chalked up a long overdue win for Star Trek (2009).
The award was memorably presented at the 2010 ceremony by Ben Stiller, dressed as a character from the film Avatar. Given that Avatar wasn’t nominated in the Makeup category, Stiller jokingly regretted his costume choice, stating, “I should’ve just worn my Spock ears.” He endeared himself to Trek fans even further when he added, “I own two pairs from The Original Series both signed by Leonard Nimoy.” Stiller’s Trek-infused monologue proved to be appropriate moments later when he opened the envelope to reveal Barney Burman, Mindy Hall and Joel Harlow as the first ever Oscar winners for the Star Trek franchise.
In addition to this historic win, Star Trek (2009) was also nominated for three more awards that night, in the Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects categories. Members of the cast were also in attendance, including Chris Pine, who played the role of Captain Kirk, and Zoe Saldana, who played Lieutenant Uhura.
Although the 2010 ceremony boasted Star Trek’s greatest triumph at the Oscars, the fan-favorite moment would come a few years later when William Shatner reprised his role as Captain Kirk for the 2013 ceremony.
The show was hosted that year by Seth MacFarlane, an avowed Trek fan who also played the role of Ensign Rivers in two episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise. During MacFarlane’s opening monologue, Shatner appeared on an enormous viewscreen above the stage, dressed in his familiar Starfleet uniform and sitting in his famous Captain’s chair. “This is Captain James T. Kirk,” he announced, before explaining that he had come back in time from the 23rd Century to prevent MacFarlane from making any gaffes in his hosting duties.
Despite an obvious breach of Starfleet’s Temporal Prime Directive, it was a huge joy for fans to see William Shatner back in the role of Captain Kirk for the first time since Star Trek Generations, which was released almost 20 years earlier. And, with Kirk present throughout the 10 minute opening segment, it was one of the longest periods in the spotlight Star Trek has enjoyed at the Oscars so far.
Trek was back again the following year, this time among the nominees, picking up a nod in the Visual Effects category for Star Trek Into Darkness. This film marked Leonard Nimoy’s final appearance as Spock – a role he had performed in eight films. Nimoy sadly passed away the following year and was remembered at the 2016 Oscars during the In Memoriam segment.
A few other Trek alumni had been memorialized in this segment previously, including James Doohan, who played Montgomery Scott in seven Trek films, and Ricardo Montalbán, who played the title role in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But Nimoy’s tribute was particularly special, coming at the very end of the segment and concluding with his famous line as Spock: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.”
The following year, another Trek star was remembered in the In Memoriam segment. This tribute was an especially difficult one for fans, as Anton Yelchin, who played Pavel Chekhov in three Trek films, had died tragically the year before at the age of just 27. One of Yelchin’s final films, Star Trek Beyond, which was dedicated to his memory, was also featured at the ceremony, picking up a nomination for Best Makeup & Hairstyling. Joel Harlow, who was on the team that won the Oscar for Star Trek (2009), was the nominee, along with Richard Alonzo. Though the pair didn’t win the award, their work was prominently featured in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on the eve of the Oscars ceremony, with Harlow revealing that the crustacean-like humanoid Natalia was his favorite creation for the film.
As we look forward to this year’s Oscars ceremony, Trek fans will have to satisfy themselves with being impartial spectators. Despite an abundance of great new Trek content released last year – from Picard and Discovery to Lower Decks – these small screen productions aren’t eligible for recognition at the Oscars. Still, fans might want to look out for a few Trek alumni, who are among the nominees at this year’s awards. These include Dianne Warren, composer of the theme song for Star Trek: Enterprise, who is nominated in the Music (Original Song) category, as well as Kemp Powers, a season one staff writer for Star Trek: Discovery, who is up for the Writing (Adapted Screenplay) award.
Making predictions on the Oscar winners is always a dangerous game. But, with 16 nominations across seven films and 40 years, one prediction is certain – Star Trek will be back at the Oscars again soon.
Christian Kriticos is a freelance writer based in London, England. You can find more of his work at www.christiankriticos.com.